Over and over again in my clinical practice and in my advice column, I often hear from people wanting to build — or rebuild — trust in a significant relationship, whether it’s a sexual relationship or a relationship with a friend or family member. Trust is one of the most crucial building blocks of becoming emotionally intimate with someone; it’s absolutely fundamental for a healthy, close relationship. And yet it is far easier, and takes a lot less time, to lose trust than to build it back up. The rebuilding of trust takes time, patience, and work, just as it does to establish it in the first place. But it can be done if both people are motivated. Are you willing to put in the effort for the significant potential payoff? If so, here are some steps to take.
1. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
Even as young children, we pick up very quickly on the clues that someone is saying things that aren’t really true. The parent who always threatens to make us leave the restaurant, but we know will never actually follow through; the sister who always promises to share her cookie, but invariably eats the whole thing anyway — we start not to buy what they’re claiming anymore. Our instincts for self-protection, honed evolutionarily for survival over thousands of years, typically will take note of the proverbial boy crying wolf. And we will adjust our behavior and expectations accordingly — learning not to trust the person quite as much the next time, in order to not be let down. So if you are looking to increase trust within your relationship, it’s imperative that you stop saying things that you won’t follow through on, or that don’t represent your actual feelings. Even what seem like minor lies, when chronic, will tell the other person that they should no longer trust the things that come out of your mouth.
2. Be vulnerable — gradually.
Two distant coworkers who spend 20 years just chatting about the weather and not ever working closely together on projects never need to rely on each other for anything other than idle small talk or a returned “Good morning” when passing each other in the hallway. But what about two coworkers who have only worked together for six months, but are constantly in the trenches with each other, coming to need each other desperately for that 9 p.m. email to be returned, or to look over each other’s work, or stand up for each other against a difficult boss? They have developed a bond with each other that is much tighter than decades of small talk, and it’s because they have to be vulnerable with each other — relying on each other to come through or else facing real danger. In relationships that we choose in our personal lives, we also build trust through vulnerability. Some of this comes automatically with time and daily interactions, like knowing that if our partner said they’d pick us up at the airport, they’ll be there, or feeling safe that if we eat a dinner they’ve prepared, it won’t contain the allergen they know will send us into anaphylaxis. But emotional vulnerability is important as well. Building trust takes a willingness to open yourself up to the potential risk of hurt — talking about something embarrassing from your past, letting them in on what scares you in the here and now, showing parts of yourself that you don’t think are “attractive” enough for a first-date reveal. Trust is built when our partners have the opportunity to let us down or hurt us — but do not. And in order for them to pass the test and build that trust, we must make ourselves vulnerable to that letdown. Gradually is best, of course, to protect ourselves along the way.